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With virus in the air, Portlanders packed onto streets and paths this weekend

N Willamette Blvd just south of Rosa Parks.


(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

I’m trying to justify an article I just read in The Oregonian with what I saw on a ride through Portland Sunday. And I can’t do it.

NE Sacramento in the Alameda neighborhood adjacent to Rose City Golf Course.

The article sounds an alarm that the ubiquitous “6 feet” social distancing recommendation might not be nearly enough — especially when outdoors. It also has specific information about how the virus can spread among people bicycling. “Richard Corsi, a Portland State University dean,” The Oregonian reports, “… recommends people stay 20 feet away from each other when they’re outdoors.”

The expert advice shared in the article means that, as a city, we have two choices: Stop walking and biking outdoors, or quickly create a vast increase in the amount of public space to do it in.

Corsi told The Oregonian that outdoor air and wind can blow droplets that lead to infection. He likened the microscopic virus droplets to secondhand smoke. “If you’re going outside, pretend everybody’s a smoker and you don’t like cigarette smoke.” What makes the virus more insidious is that unlike smoke, you can’t smell or see it. The story also includes a reference to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that found the virus could linger in the air and still be infectious three hours later.

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Here’s more from Corsi:

“He recommends letting 10 seconds pass before you cross the pass of another person, including your running buddy. Runners in particular breathe heavily and could potentially be expelling more of the virus into the air, he said. And the idea of hiking [or biking, I would add] on one of the region’s many narrow trails — like Portland’s popular Wildwood Trail — becomes an all-out terrible idea if it involves passing other people trekking the opposite direction, he said.

If an oncoming hiker coughs just before you pass, “you’re probably walking through a cloud of viruses that stay suspended in air,” Corsi said.

If an oncoming hiker says “hello” that also increases the chance they’re propelling the virus into the air, he said… Corsi recommends going outside the house and into other indoor spaces — such as a grocery store — as seldom as possible.”

Below is a graphical representation of a bicycle rider’s “respiratory signature” created by Juan D. Puerto of Potomac Pedalers Touring Club:

(Graphic: Juan D. Puerto/Potomac Pedalers Touring Club)

Admirable distancing attempts in an impossible situation.

If we take what Corsi says seriously, the things I saw — and even did myself — outside yesterday should be cause for concern. Some parts of our city reminded me of Sunday Parkways.

North Willamette Boulevard was (once again) packed with people. The popular section along the bluff was packed. So was the section between Rosa Parks and University of Portland. In both areas, the number of people on foot and using bicycles far outnumbered those using cars.

Down on the Esplanade, it was even more shocking. I took a telephoto lens to shoot from the Steel Bridge because I knew it would be busy and I don’t want to risk my health or that of others just to get a few photos. I’m glad I did because the path was packed. People tried to pass each other with distance, but it was simply impossible given the number of people and the width of the path.

Over at Mt. Tabor Park, despite the ban on driving on roads inside the park, crowds still congregated on the road near the reservoir and passed closely by one another on dirt trails.

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NE Tillamook near Rose City Golf Course. Notice the unused space in the center reserved for drivers.

Neighborhood streets adjacent to Rose City Golf Course were also crowded. NE Sacramento felt very similar to Willamette Blvd with many people walking and biking and jogging in the street to avoid close contact on sidewalks.

Hanging out with just the moon up in Forest Park around 10:00 pm last night.

One change I’ve noticed out there in the past few days is that some people are now wearing masks or bandannas. Corsi from PSU told The Oregonian that those measures risk giving a false sense of security.

So what is a responsible bicycle rider supposed to do? Only ride indoors if you can. Or don’t ride at all. Or tell our city, county, and state to take immediate action to cordon off more temporary space on our roads and bridges for people and less space for cars.

Another option is to only ride in times or places where you can maintain as much solitude and distance from others as possible. Last night I left my house at 9:00 pm or so to ride through Forest Park. It was just the moon, me and a bunch of deer mice.

Here’s that story in The Oregonian again.

Does this change your feelings about biking outside?

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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